The first blockbuster show of 2012 opened this week amid massive acclaim, with critics lining up to celebrate the man named the most influential British artist among a recent poll of 1,000 contemporary creatives. We spoke to Edith Devaney, curator of the major David Hockney landscape retrospective at The Royal Academy, about the challenges of putting on such an anticipated show and what she hopes to achieve in the academy’s hallowed halls.
The rich, sometimes daring palette, the instinctive feel for personality – be it people or places – the eye for composition, the restless urge to evolve and reinvent, it’s not hard to see why so many hail Hockney as one of their key influences.
This new show David Hockney: A Bigger Picture is inspired by that restless reinvention in more ways than one. In 2007 the highlight of the RA summer show was Bigger Trees Near Warter, a mammoth 50 panel Yorkshire landscape which marked a renewed passion for the county where he grew up and where he now spends more and more of his time. It was that picture which prompted the discussions which led to this show although the piece itself will not be on display.
Much has also been made of the inclusion of various iPad paintings in this show – The Evening Standard dubbed him “The iPriest of Art” and he has tickled many interviewers by knocking up miniature Hockneys on his iPhone.
But he himself has mocked the iPriest moniker, ridiculing the obsession with “computer art” in a Sunday Times article as “daft.” “What did Leonardo use to paint the Mona Lisa?” he said. “Well he used brushes; so if I can get a brush I can do do that, can’t I? No! A brush, like a computer, is merely a tool.”
This is a man who at one time or another has worked with oil, acrylic, crayon, with collage, etching and aquatints, heck he even designed works using fax machines. In this show alone there’s oils, watercolours, charcoal drawings and film along with the much-heralded iPad pieces.
And rather than suggesting a swing to landscape in this new show, rather curator Edith Devaney wants to, “trace Hockney’s development as a landscape painter.”
She said: “His early works introduce many of the themes which will recur in the more recent work. In the landscape work Hockney examines the role of memory and imagination, he explores perspective, he examines the changes to the landscape brought about by changing light and seasons.”
Hockney, like The Impressionists loves capturing this change, the way a tree, pond or path can look completely different from one day to the next. He paints wherever possible en plein air, bundling materials into his car and scouring the Yorkshire countryisde which spots which capture his imagination.
Again the tempting narrative – the spiritual homecoming of the Californian emigre – is insufficient, as Hockney has pointed out just how wild Los Angeles actually is.
But even though drawing simplistic conclusions should be avoided, that does not mean the show will not raise a few eyebrows.
As Edith Devaney puts it: “It is building a story which tracks the artist’s thinking that provides the discipline. Hockney is an artist who is constantly developing and employing different tools in image making. As a result there are new bodies of work which will be shown here for the first time and which will be surprising to even the most knowledgeable Hockney followers.”
She knows expectations are high, and that working with a living legend can bring its own complications, but she is full of praise for the way the preparations have gone.
“Of course there is an additional pressure when working with a living artist to present their work in the best possible way, but this is balanced (certainly in this particular case) with having the benefit of the artist’s input in curatorial decisions. Both I and my co-curator, Marco Livingstone, have met very regularly with the artist to consult with him on every aspect of the exhibition’s development
“In this case it was very much a collaboration which had added hugely to the strength of the exhibition. Hockney is a very generous artist to work with and is very interested in considering other ways of looking at the subject or presenting work.
“As this exhibition is so much about evoking a sense of place, to have the artist closely involved in the process of exhibition selection and design was invaluable. Marco and I have both known David for a number of years (in Marco’s case for 35); so we all came into the project with a good understanding of both the work, and how we could all work together.”
And here at the top of 2012, with The Cultural Olympiad and a slew of big-name shows ready to compete for attention in this year when so many eyes are on London, is there a pressure being first?
“It’s exciting. It feels very appropriate for one of our most celebrated British artists to ’open’ this wonderful cultural event.”